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Pass rush AWOL for Texans
One of the primary reasons why the Houston Texans' defense was expected to improve significantly this season was its once-formidable pass rush.
That hasn't been the case so far despite the presence of three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt working in tandem with outside linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.
None of those players have recorded a sack yet for the winless Texans.
They're hoping to get a boost Sunday at NRG Stadium against 37-year-old New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. The pocket passer was sacked six times against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night.
Between rust, injuries, elaborate schemes intended to maximize protection on the quarterback and, simply, being blocked, the Texans' pass rush is hurting.
It's more complicated than it looks when analyzing why the Texans are getting stonewalled.
The Tennessee Titans utilized a lot of chip-blocking assistance against Watt, play-action fakes and running the football. They did that out of necessity while playing without their three top tackles and starting quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The New England Patriots operated with a lot of quick-game to get the football out with quarterback Tom Brady using a well-practiced internal clock to know when he was running out of time and needed to deliver his passes.
"I think you have to look closely at the pass rush," Texan head coach Bill O'Brien said. "You have to look at what teams are doing against the pass rush. We've got to continue to coach it up and try to free these guys up as best we can, but a lot of teams know that pass rush is well-known so they're not going to sit back there and hold the ball.
"So, the ball comes out pretty quickly when you have guys that can rush like ours do. There's different ways that you can disrupt that and things. Before you start really analyzing the pass rush, you really have to look at what the offense is doing. How are they max-protecting, chipping, getting the ball out quick, screens, things like that."
Regardless of why it's happening, the Texans only have three sacks overall. Two of those have been posted by nose tackle D.J. Reader when he shifted over to defensive end.
Watt has been generating pressure, but he's a marked man because of his ability and reputation.
"We have to go out there and play our game and do what we do," Watt said. "We obviously have some guys that can get after it, but we need to put ourselves in situations where we can get after it. You have to be good on first and second down to get into good third-down situations."
Health has been a factor in the Texans' declining production at pressuring the quarterback.
Clowney missed the Titan game with back and elbow injuries. He was limited in practice Wednesday and is not regarded as a lock to play Sunday due to his back issue.
Mercilus missed the entire preseason with a strained hamstring and is off to an extremely quiet start.
"Disappointed in myself, honestly," Mercilus said. "I know that's not me. I know that's not what I put on film in the past. I understand there's no excuse for it. All I can do is improve."
Mercilus alluded to needing to be more decisive and try not to do too much.
O'Brien expressed confidence in Mercilus, who's an accomplished pass rusher with a strong track record of getting after quarterbacks.
"No concern at all, I really want to stay away from built-in excuses and things like that," O'Brien said. "I think you'll see improvement every week from Whitney.
"All of those guys that haven't played football in a long time, you'll see improvement. There's no concern. He feels good."
The Texans' only other sack this season was notched by rookie outside linebacker Duke Ejiofor, the former Alief Taylor standout who has earned an increased role because of his sharp moves and relentless style.
"There's a lot to like about Duke," O'Brien said. "He's got really good length, smart guy, tough guy."
Battered by the Cowboys' pass rush, Manning was under constant duress during a defeat Sunday night. Manning is extremely immobile.
His offensive line, including high-priced new left tackle Nate Solder, looked awful and confused at times.
"We know he's probably going to hold the ball long enough," Mercilus said. "We've got to get pressure on him. Even if we don't get there, we have to get him to feel uncomfortable in that pocket.
"There have been a lot of game plans as far as getting the ball out and not allowing us to get the pass rush started and allow us to get into our groove. We have to get rolling."
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